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April 18, 2019
Carmen Simone has 700 reasons behind her decision to become the leader of the University Center in Sioux Falls: That’s how many area students she estimates don’t go on to any post-secondary education after high school.
“We want to reach those students, especially the first-generation students who don’t feel they’re college material,” said Simone, who began her role at the beginning of the year. “We want to help them realize they can accomplish that.”
Simone comes to the center in northwest Sioux Falls at a pivotal time, with a resume that suggests she’s ready for it. She previously served as president of Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, where she led two campuses, stabilized enrollment, increased retention and led record-breaking philanthropic efforts.
Before that, she served in leadership roles at colleges in Idaho and Wyoming.
Her background is in chemistry, the field where she earned a Ph.D. and served as a professor in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Now, her task involves another sort of formula: Determining how to carve a new identity for the center as it adds USD’s newly announced college of workforce development and innovation while leveraging partnerships from DSU and SDSU, which will continue to offer classes there.
“What we had in the past was three universities with a piece of University Center and University Center staff working to coordinate and help students find a pathway,” Simone said.
“University Center has never had an identity here or been able to market itself because it didn’t know who it was or what it was trying to accomplish.”
USD became the lead institution governing University Center three years ago, so Simone reports to new USD president Sheila Gestring, whom she calls “a great boss … who understands what a community college is and what they do for the communities they serve.”
For her part, Gestring articulated a vision when announcing Simone’s appointment that called for providing education to “nontraditional and adult learners who seek professional development, individual advancement and lifelong learning.”
Enter the idea of a community college, which is what USD’s new college of workforce development and innovation likely will resemble.
“The crown jewel degree program is the associate of arts and general studies. It’s a very flexible two-year degree that helps students explore what they want to study in college,” Simone said. “It gets them on a pathway, gives them success and confidence, and it’s transferable to any institution in the U.S.”
Another degree offered in Sioux Falls, the Bachelor of Science in Technical Leadership, is a USD program that just graduated its first students. It takes the first two years of education from a technical institution such as Southeast Tech and builds two years on top of that to train students with technical skills for future leadership roles.
“All the pieces are there,” Simone said. “What we’re doing is repackaging it into a new college that will be easier to market and easier for students to understand they’re getting a degree from USD and not from University Center.”
University Center likely will receive a new name in the coming weeks, she added.
“When you know who you are, it’s easier to market yourself. As University Center, we lacked an identity, so there was no power behind the brand, whereas USD and SDSU and DSU have strong marketing brands, and we want to leverage all three and get University Center out of the middle of that.”
DSU and SDSU will continue to offer courses such as cybersecurity, nursing, web development and health care coding. All the general coursework will be offered by USD.
“It will be seamless for the student, and it makes it easier for the other universities to offer programs because they don’t have to offer all the coursework. They just have to build on the general education with their specific technical courses,” Simone said.
“The partnerships are critically important. We know to be successful we have to have strong partnerships and keep all the programs in Sioux Falls that are important to students.”
University Center counts about 1,000 students – a number that has steadily declined. There are plenty of reasons behind it, including a funding model that could discourage students from taking classes online and a per-credit-hour cost greater than that at many community colleges.
“There are ways to mitigate that cost, and we’ll be exploring that as we get off the ground,” Simone said. “Scholarships are one way, and we have to talk about federal financial aid for students who are under-resourced. That pays for a significant amount of college for them.”
There’s also some bridge building to be done, she acknowledged.
“I’ve heard in the past that the home campuses felt a lot of competition with Sioux Falls, and they shouldn’t,” she said. “That’s hurt all of us. We’re hopeful being part of USD is going to create one model where a USD student is a USD student whether they’re online or in Sioux Falls or in Vermillion, and our job is to serve that student.”
In many ways, the Sioux Falls campus and those outside the city serve different populations, she said.
Sioux Falls has lacked a community college since Kilian Community College closed in 2016, creating an opportunity for a rebranded USD-led University Center to serve a potential pool of students that still exists but isn’t a fit for a traditional college campus experience.
“The students we’re serving are already living in Sioux Falls and have a home life, and they are working or have family obligations,” Simone said. “We want to tap into students who have dropped out of high school and are coming back to get a GED. We can serve those students. We want to serve new Americans. And part of it is just getting our name out there in a way people can recognize and embrace.”
It has been several years since Sioux Falls had a community college. Carmen Simone is out to change that.